Evanston 150’s Walk & Roll committee would like to see Evanston’s streets shared by pedestrians and bicyclers. This bike corral in front of the Evanston Athletic Club on Benson Avenue is for public use. RoundTable photo

To members of the Evanston 150 Committee Walk & Roll, most of Evanston’s streets are too narrow – not just because they barely accommodate current traffic but also because they were for the most part designed for little else. The mission of this committee is “to get the community to commit to the safety and enjoyment of streets by pedestrians and bicycles,” says Natalie Watson, one of its members.

“This goal is at the intersection of environment and health,” says Ms. Watson. Fewer vehicles on the streets means fewer fumes, which translates into a decrease in respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Health problems related to sitting in a car for long periods – obesity, hypertension and depression – will also be reduced if people choose to walk or bike to a destination, says Ms. Watson. Changing the use and configuration of streets can change the quality of life, this committee feels.

Economic development figures in as well, says Ms. Watson, as people return to walkable neighborhoods. “People want to live in a place where they can walk to shops and restaurants. … Foot traffic means live streets.”  It is to the advantage of many types of business to locate in a place with steady foot traffic, she says, “so people wander in and out of stores – “rather than putting parking lots and hoping people drive to your store.”

Barb Cornew of the Active Transportation Alliance, who attends many Walk & Roll committee meetings, says the Alliance is agreement with the goals of the committee. “We’re looking to develop ‘complete streets,” she says, “ones that accommodate bikers, pedestrians and vehicles.”

The Active Transportation Alliance has worked with the City of Evanston on several projects over the past decade, Ms. Cornew says, citing in particular the protected bicycle lane now being constructed along Davis and Church streets and the City’s multi-modal transportation plan, adopted by City Council in 2009. “Walk & Roll is the ‘community engagement piece’ of the City’s multi-modal transportation plan,” says Ms. Cornew.

Changing Evanston’s streets even a little at a time can help the community rethink their uses. Walk & Roll has developed some concrete plans that may pave the way to implementing their vision of reclaiming streets for more than vehicular traffic. In late August at the Saturday farmers market, committee members demonstrated a bike corral – a tubular device that fences in a few street parking spaces and dedicates the area to bicycle parking.

Ms. Watson says the City is cooperating on “Park(ing) Day” on Sept. 21, when Walk & Roll will transform several metered parking spaces for use as public parks. On Main Street just west of the CTA station there will be open meditation, snacks from nearby restaurants, free portrait drawing and other activities. Spaces in front of the Hotel Orrington on Orrington Avenue will have live music or performance. And for a day or an evening next year, some streets may be, as the Active Transportation Alliances suggests, “complete.” Open Street comes alive with all kinds of traffic – vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian, says Ms. Watson. People would have to slow down, look out for each other and accommodate each other’s needs, she says, referring to “woonerf,” the Dutch word for “living streets.”

Holding an Open Street evening would be a “tactic,” says Ms. Watson. That is, the committee does not expect major changes from the single event but hopes it would give a concrete vision of the possibility.

During the citizen comment portion of a recent City Council meeting, Ms. Watson said, “Although measures like speed limits and fines, radar displays and red flags are good short-term medicine, what we really need is a long-term cure. The time has come for all of us to question all our assumptions about transportation. Each one of us makes our communities either more or less safe and satisfying places, just because of how we choose to get around. We can learn to see our streets anew, and recognize them as important public spaces, belonging to everyone.”

With Parking Day and Open Streets, the bike corral and the protected bike lane, Walk and Roll is making incremental changes to reclaim and open Evanston’s streets.

“We’ve had all sorts of people come to our meetings. I feel like or group has really good energy,” says Ms. Watson. The committee meets monthly, with additional meetings for the projects. “We are open to new ideas, new projects and new members, and we need help with the projects” she says.

Anyone interested in joining the Walk & Roll committee or in working on one of its projects may contact Ms. Watson at kwan.myong@gamil.com.